Public Release: 

QUT study finds staff sacked in sick circumstances

Queensland University of Technology

Some employers are exploiting the vulnerability of young unsupported workers, sacking them in unfair circumstances, a new study by Queensland University of Technology (QUT) has found.

Almost one in five young workers who lost their jobs was sacked for being sick, injured or for responding to family problems, the study discovered.

Lead QUT researcher Dr Paula McDonald from the Faculty of Business said many sick employees had taken only a single day off work before they were sacked and in one-fifth of sick leave cases had even provided a medical certificate.

The study investigated more than 1200 dismissal complaints made by 15 to 24-year-olds to the Young Workers Advisory Service.

The age group, which makes up one-fifth of the Australian labour force, is particularly vulnerable because they fill the majority of part-time and casual positions in the hospitality and retail industries.

"Several cases described serious medical problems that clearly restricted the employee's ability to attend work, such as a heart attack, wisdom teeth removal and cancer," Dr McDonald said.

Dr McDonald said that of the young workers who were sacked after being injured, 80 per cent had been injured at work.

"In one case, a male apprentice required eight weeks off work due to an injury he suffered on the job. The employer initially agreed to the time off then terminated the apprenticeship once the young man returned to work," she said.

Dr McDonald said the research also found:

  • 19 per cent were forced to leave their jobs due to bullying and harassment, with a quarter of these cases involving sexual harassment, mostly against young women,
  • 18 per cent of dismissals involved accusations of theft, fraud or misconduct, more commonly made against males,
  • 14 per cent of dismissals occurred over pay or contract-related issues and complaints,
  • 12 per cent of cases alleged poor performance was the reason for dismissal,
  • 10 per cent of cases involved discrimination, usually against women and often involving pregnancy,
  • 8 per cent of cases involved operational reasons for dismissal, such as redundancy or squeezing staff out of work by reducing their hours.

"These young people don't match the Generation Y stereotype of savvy career-builders," Dr McDonald said.

"They are perceived as being disloyal job-hoppers, but that is an unfair accusation because young workers often have to cope with insecure work environments, low wages and anti-social working hours.

"Some employers exploit the vulnerability of young employees and capitalise on their inexperience, limited representation and relative difficulty in seeking legal advice. Some also treat young workers as disposable, especially in this sample who are generally low skilled and who work in precarious, casual positions.

"These workers are often treated more unfairly because they are more easily replaced, compared to highly skilled workers who are more difficult to replace."

Dr McDonald said young people needed parents, educators and community agencies to teach them their rights and reassure them they should expect a safe and fair workplace.

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